It's become cliché to talk about how young actors seem wise beyond their years, but Danielle Panabaker is living proof that sometimes old chestnuts ring true. When viewing her performance in the HBO miniseries Empire Falls (beginning Sat., May 28), one is immediately taken by her preternatural talent as she portrays sensitive teen Tick Roby, the beloved daughter of a divorcing couple played by Ed Harris and Helen Hunt. The film was shot in the fall of 2003, when Panabaker was only 15 years old, and the actor more than holds her own against her famous onscreen parents and an impressive cast that also includes Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Robin Wright Penn.
Many actors would have been intimidated to be making their first film among such luminaries, but, for Panabaker, her unawareness that she was even under consideration to be cast worked in her favor. When she originally auditioned for the film, she received feedback that she wasn't right for the role. "I was bummed, but moved on," she recalls. "About five weeks later, I got a phone call saying I was being flown to Maine to read with the director, Fred Schepisi, which was strange to me, because in my mind the movie had gone to someone else." Thinking it was a nice opportunity to visit Maine for the weekend, Panabaker went into her audition with an absence of nerves, assuming she wasn't really in the running. "My mom and I flew back on Monday, just assuming life would resume as normal," she continues. "On Tuesday, about 12 hours later, I got a phone call at 8 o'clock in the morning saying a car would be at my door in three-and-a-half hours and I should be packed for the next three months. It was crazy."
Based on the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel by Richard Russo (who also wrote the screenplay), Empire Falls focuses on a myriad of colorful characters in a dying mill town. At the heart of the story is Harris' Miles Roby, who finds himself wishing for a better life for his daughter. As Tick, Panabaker is not only the apple of her father's eye but she also represents hope for the future. In lesser hands, Tick could have been too perfect: She befriends a troubled teen and even dumps the most popular boy in school. As played by Panabaker, Tick is a completely believable creation, full of anger towards her mother, without ever seeming childish. It's a lot to place on any actor's shoulders, let alone one so young. "It could be intense," Panabaker admits, adding that shooting the surprising climax of the film "was probably three of the hardest days of my life." She praises her director and costars, particularly Harris, for making the shoot as easy as possible, and adds that once again her lack of knowledge kept her from being too intimidated. "The funny part is, when I booked the movie, I really had no idea who most of these people were," she admits. "The first week of rehearsals, my mom and I were running around to every video store we could find, renting and watching movies with everyone in them."
Panabaker and her family moved to Los Angeles three years ago, after she and her sister Kay (a regular on the WB's series Summerland) convinced their parents they should pursue acting full time. There was little doubt the two were serious about their work. "The first year we were here, we were taking acting classes seven days a week," she says. "We took them from anyone who would accept us. We spent our days doing school, afternoons auditioning, and evenings going to class." She still tries to take classes when she has time, citing Marnie Cooper and Warner Laughlin as two local favorites. She adds that she also took something away from the bad classes. "You can always learn something," she notes. "Maybe it's a technique you don't like; maybe it's a style. But you learn different things."
Up next for Panabaker are two big Hollywood films: In this summer's Sky High, she plays a superhero who can control nature, and in Thanksgiving's Yours, Mine, and Ours she plays the eldest daughter of Rene Russo. The Sky High job came about as a direct result from her screen test for Disney's Freaky Friday, a role that eventually went to Lindsay Lohan. Panabaker recalls being crushed when she didn't get the Friday job, but the producers remembered her when casting Sky High. "They had me in mind ever since they saw me test," she says, "which was so nice to hear."
Panabaker, who graduated high school at 14 and has been taking college courses ever since, is thinking of attending UCLA in the fall as an English major. "I know enough about the business to know what a difficult and crazy business it is, and I love being a part of it right now, but who knows? Five years, 10 years, maybe even two years down the road, it may be too overwhelming or too something, or I could just not like it anymore, at which point I would definitely quit," she says. "I've always said if this becomes too much of a job, I'm just not going to do it, because there's no point. There are so many other people who could be doing this and who have the passion for it, that me taking up space is no good. I love it, and I'll do it as long as I continue to love it."